How America Ferrera Connects The Dots Between Feminism And Immigrant Rights

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America Ferrera at the 11th Annual Global Women’s Rights Awards at the Directors Guild of America.

Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images

America Ferrera was one of four women to win the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Global Women’s Rights on Monday night in Los Angeles. During her acceptance speech, the actor-producer made a point of thanking a woman she looked up to, one of the women to introduce the Ugly Betty and Superstore star.

“It makes it all the more surreal to be awarded this by one of the only role models I had growing up who looked like me, Dolores Huerta,” Ferrera said, facing the iconic civil rights activist and United Farm Workers co-founder onstage at the Director’s Guild of America headquarters. “To grow up a tiny Latina in California with an outsize dream that nobody really saw as possible for me — to open my textbook and to see you was so incredibly impacting in ways that you will never know.”

Because of her activism and her high profile as a Latina role model, Ferrera was honored at the May 9 ceremony along with executive director of U.N. Women and U.N. Under-Secretary Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; actor-producer and abortion rights activist Amy Brenneman; and recently elected Flint Mayor Karen Weaver. Each recipient explained feminist activism from their varying perspectives. Lakshmi Puri, who accepted the award on behalf of Mlambo-Ngcuka, discussed global movements on equal pay for equal work, women’s unpaid care burden, and the fight against child marriage, among other issues. Brenneman spoke on her public disclosure of an abortion she does not regret, and her continued involvement in the fight to keep the procedure safe and accessible in the U.S. Weaver has been reckoning with the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, caused by gross mismanagement that she later in the evening implied was criminal.

Ferrera, who produces NBC’s Superstore in addition to starring in it, focused her acceptance speech on role models.

The very first film I did, Real Women Have Curves, received a response from so many — not just women, not just Latinas, all kinds of people from around the world who saw themselves. And I realized what I already knew as a young person, the power of seeing ourselves, being shown ourselves, being shown our own potential as women, as human beings, as people of color, as people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It was life-changing, to know that what I love to do and the talent that I had so desperately wanted to express had the potential to be a tool. A tool for helping other people find their voices. It was then that I went from wanting to be a famous, successful actress to wanting my work to matter. … It’s not easy out there for most of us who don’t look like the one thing you are supposed to look like in this industry. To find roles that honor our intelligence and our humanity and our passion, and our real-life roles. When you find them, it really is a gift, and when you find people who are willing to also dedicate their time and their lives and their careers to creating those types of images, not just for us, but for our children, it’s such a gift to know them and to work with them. … I was moderating a conversation once among young women, and there was something that a young girl said that has really stayed with me. She stood up and she asked one of our panelists — she was in junior high — and she said, “I was on the chess team. I was really good. But I was the only girl on the chess team, and it felt hard to be there, so I quit.” And I haven’t been able to shake that. Because if we can’t get our young girls to stay in the room for the chess team, how are we gonna get them to stay in the room to be leaders in business, leaders in politics, leaders in medicine, leaders in science? We have a really big job to do, and part of that is creating role models. Creating people that our young women and young men can look up to and say, “I can be that.”

During a panel discussion later in the evening, apparent Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was discussed in terms of presenting children poor role models. “We have young children coming home from school; kindergarteners, coming home from school being told by their fellow kindergarteners, ‘My mom says that when Donald Trump becomes president, he’s gonna deport you and your family,'” Ferrera said. “It’s not happening in a vacuum. We are teaching a young generation what it means to be American.”

Ferrera, who is a celebrity spokesperson for voter mobilization nonprofit Voto Latino, also addressed DREAMers (undocumented people who came to the U.S. as minors) in the forthcoming national election. The Obama administration’s policy of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allows DREAMers to apply for a renewable work permit and exemption from deportation. Ferrera notes that in the fight for policies to help DREAMers and their families, many have come forward and publicly identified as undocumented and, thus, there is an enormous amount at stake if the policies don’t survive in the next administration: “These young people now have given the government their names, their addresses, and fear retaliation. And so we have to do our best to make sure that that is not the case. … Someone asked me outside, on the step and repeat, ‘Does this frighten you? Everything that’s happening, does it frighten you?’ More than anything, it saddens me. I was born and raised to be so grateful that I lived in a country where my ideas meant that I belonged, and what we’re seeing now is that we’re being told that’s not the case, that no matter how much you want to be American, no matter how hard you want to work, no matter how much you have to contribute, the color of your skin, where you were born, the language you speak make you undesirable.”

“When you talk about the immigration issue, immigration is a feminist issue as well, and we need to start thinking about it as such,” she said.

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